Museum Brings Fossils to Life – Discussing Pain Management – WSJ March 2014

Museum Brings Fossils to Life – Discussing Pain Management – WSJ March 2014

Museum Brings Fossils to Life – Discussing Pain Management – WSJ March 2014

Interactive Features at the American Museum of Natural History

By SOPHIA HOLLANDER for the Wall Street Journal

The prehistoric flying reptile swooped over a shimmering ocean. But in a flash, it quickly plummeted into the waves. A curse rang out.

The interactives group at the American Museum of Natural History was testing one of the more ambitious features from its newest exhibit “Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs,” which opens April 5. In it, a flight simulator will allow visitors to soar through two carefully constructed prehistoric landscapes—using their bodies like a “game controller” to direct the flight of the reptile.

In another exhibit at the museum, “The Power of Poison,” on view through Aug. 10, visitors can flip through a giant “enchanted” book that feels like it was borrowed from the library of Hogwarts, the wizards’ school of Harry Potter fame. Another part of the same exhibit animates figures across the side of two Greek-style vases and a plate to tell a story about how poison was used in ancient cultures. In some of the outlier cases, what some cultures considered poison, other cultures would use for pain management and medication.

That particular part interested me the most. Poison as medication, would that not cause pain, or worse? I went on to research this online a bit further as I found the topic had peaked my interest. I found an article on this site called trello that discussed pain management techniques over the years, and it is amazing what we would used to use to treat general pain, and as medication or in general, health solutions. Things like bloodletting. Quite interesting, while also hard to believe as well. There are even examples in our present day like botox.

Natural-history museums are better known for their looming taxidermied mammals, glittering minerals and towering dinosaur fossils. But now museums across the country are grappling with ways to engage a generation weaned on sophisticated game and media technologies—without alienating their core audiences or distracting visitors from the actual objects.

A lone interactive screen no longer cuts it, exhibition designers said. Despite limited budgets that can’t compete with those of game designers, some are shifting their resources to newer, more “invisible” technologies—like motion sensors and 3-D modeling—that help make exhibits more animated and immersive.

For example, as readers turn the pages of the roughly three-by-four-foot enchanted book, designed to simulate an 18th-century botanical tome, the blank “parchment” becomes animated with words and images exploring the folklore and mythology of poisonous plants like belladonna and monkshood. Modeled, in part, on Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, the book uses a combination of electromagnetic sensors and projection mapping.

“It has taken me years to make that book,” said Ms. Alonso, who became the museum’s director of exhibition interactives and media nearly six years ago. She quickly reorganized the group to reflect the museum’s new approach to exhibitions, she said.

“We used to tell stories through objects and now we tell stories based on concepts through experiences,” she said.

Part of that is simply practical, she and other museum designers said. In the past, exhibits focused on tangible artifacts like fossils, the invention of the steam engine, the evolution of animals. Now scientists focus on areas like genomics and nanotechnology.

“When you’re talking about genetics where is the object?” she said. “That forces you to be inventive.”

The Ngo family tries out a hands-on exhibit. Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal

But there are risks to embracing technology, some cautioned. Critics charge that it can become too much like entertainment, diminishing the museum’s educational mission.

“The cooler you make it, the less people are maybe prone to learn,” said Jaap Hoogstraten, director of exhibitions at Chicago’s Field Museum.

At the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Elizabeth Musteen, chief of exhibit production, estimated that technology usually comprises 20 to 30% of the museum’s exhibition-design budgets—and it poses constant questions.

“We grapple with the appropriateness of it, the cost of it, the maintenance of it, the flashiness of it,” said Ms. Musteen. ‘And every exhibit has a different answer.”

In a year-long study conducted in 2013 by Chicago’s Field Museum, 66% of respondents said they wanted the museum to include more technology in its exhibits, but nearly half also said they came to the museum as a respite from technology.

“Visitors are very conflicted,” said Mr. Hoogstraten, the Field Museum’s director of exhibitions.

The key, he said, is to create experiences that would be impossible at home. Last year, the Field developed a 46-inch interactive table that allows visitors to peel back layers of a mummy, while their explorations are projected onto a screen above.

At the Museum of Natural History in New York, recent exhibits have featured a bay projection that visitors can virtually “swim” through, triggering flashes of light (for an exhibit on bioluminescence) and a “brain lounge” featuring the cross-section of famous peoples’ brains as they perform an activity, such as Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello.

But exhibits must usually balance old and new features, said museum designers. On a recent afternoon, builders were still painting and refining models of pterosaurs with 12-foot wingspans that will anchor a massive diorama in that exhibition. They were working in the same sunlit space where scientists did taxidermy a century ago.

And in the poison show, a popular exhibit feature lets visitors use iPads to solve three murder-by-poison mysteries. Ms. Alonso said it was scaled down from her original vision, which included digital victims and a virtual autopsy.

David Harvey, senior vice president for exhibition at the New York museum, said the choices can be difficult. “But we approach this with an appetite for challenge and an acceptance of potential failure, like all good science experiments.”

Write to Sophia Hollander at

Read the full article at the Wall Street Journal Online


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